Please can I have my free drink -- electronically

If you have not seen the Starbucks iPhone app I am not sure what rock you have been living under.  I have been using on my iPhone for probably a year now.  It is a very simple app that allows you to pay for your purchase just like using your Starbucks card. 

When the product first went in I was a little skeptical that the scanning on the barcode would be iffy at best. I had used several loyalty card apps that store your member number and barcode and it worked in about half of the stores I tried them. Of course you would walk into one store, be in a huge line and not have it work only to hear the cashier sigh heavily before they had to enter in the barcode number manually. Aside - I always want to say hey there was a time before the scanner where you had to to this for every transaction. The Starbucks card works every time.

There are lots of nice things you can do with in the application itself. I can send eGifts to other people via email . Built in as well is the ability to reload your card. You can reload your card when:

  • on demand from a credit card or bank account
  • reload it when your balance falls to a certain dollar amount
  • add a fixed dollar amount to the card every X days

which are all great options.

The application also allows you to track your point status until you reach 15 points triggering Starbucks to mail you a postcard for a free drink of your choice.

This is the part that got me thinking. Why does Starbucks mail the postcards? There is an obvious printing and mailing fee associated with this process. I imagine the post cards all have to be printed on demand as the frequency that each person gets one will vary widely. It seems very old school for a company that has this progressive payment application to manage rewards delivery via the postal service.

In general retailers love gift cards and gift certificates and coupons. Think about it from their stand point. Cards are prepaid up front and inventory is generally not leaving the store at that moment. Several possibilities are also in favor of the store:

  • customers loose the cards
  • never use them
  • leave some money on them
  • allow them to expire without taking advantage of it (depends on the type of card)

Its a game, a bet. Not with obvious malice intended but calculated risk/reward.

Could this be why Starbucks[1] does not add my “free” drink to the app when I reach the goal level for the reward? They already know how many times I use my card, what loyalty level I am designated, what I drink or eat on a repeated basis. I am sure they know how frequently I actually use my free drink cards as well.

If I register my card (the Starbucks plastic one) and I loose it, they will provide me another card and transfer what my remaining balance was to the new one. But I can’t have my free drink eletcronically?

Using the application on my iPhone or swiping my member card also gives me a discount on “add-ins” that the drink might be made with, like falvored syrups or soy milk. The register will ring up the full price of the drink, I hold up the bar code on the screen and the discount is applied and removed from my balance. But I can’t have my free drink elecronically?

If I receive an eGift from another user via email, I can click on the link and the balance instantly goes onto my card, so clearly there is not a technology issue in play here. But I can’t have my free drink electronically?

As a registered member one of the “benefits” I receive are occaisional marketing emails that I gave permission to send alerting me of any special sales or new products at the store once in a while. So getting me into the store is not really an issue to spend more money. But I can’t have my free drink elecronically?

Starbucks long ago created the “third place” where you could go to hang out and relax or work. They created a culture of baristas knowing your name and anticipating your drink order. My hope is the compay is working on this process now. I have no idea if they are or not. I am trying not to be a cynic.

When I think of a membership or a reward program I think there should be benefits for both parties. Be it access, discounts, advance screening, or knowledge of my purchases. It is “quid pro quo” system. But in listing out all these points I am wondering if its really a false reward or a double dip. Even though they are providing this reward to you - it is in the format that is probably the most inconvenient for you, and they still hope you don’t use it. This takes away some of the trust that we have invested in our favorite stores. Please can I have my free drink electronically!


  1. I am using Starbucks as an example but they are not the only one who does this same thing.  ↩